Tennis: Woodbridge too far for downcast Rusedski

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GREG RUSEDSKI became the latest victim of the resurgence in Australian tennis here yesterday, crashing out 7-6 6-4 6-2 to Todd Woodbridge in Melbourne's Saturday afternoon sunshine.

The British No 1 seed's demise in the third round of the Australian Open delighted locals, but they later had to stomach the disappointment of watching their big hope, Patrick Rafter, go out 6-7 7-6 6-2 7-6 to Spain's Alberto Berasategui.

With the draw opening up for him, Rusedski was unable to make enough of an impact on a day when, from the start, his trademark big serve let him down. It was the kind of match all top players have, but many get away with because their opponent cannot take advantage. Unfortunately for Rusedski, Woodbridge could.

With Rafter, Mark Philippoussis and the 16-year-old Lleyton Hewitt all grabbing the Australian tennis headlines in recent weeks, Woodbridge was determined to send out a signal that, at 33 in the rankings and last year's Wimbledon semi-finalist, he was not to be overlooked. Centre Court against the No 5 seed seemed as good a place as any.

"My gameplan was to get the ball back down below the net and make him play as many low volleys as I could," said Woodbridge. "Greg's a good volleyer above the height of the net, but he doesn't hit the ball as hard when he's down low and that often gives me the chance of a passing shot, so that was my strategy, and in the end I did it to perfection."

Rusedski blamed his defeat both on his poor serve and not being aggressive enough. "I didn't attack the ball, especially on the returns, and my serve was bad. I didn't mix it up and take my time, and if you don't do that Todd's a very accomplished player, and he certainly took advantage today."

In retrospect the match was decided on a bizarre point in the first-set tie-break. Rusedski was always behind, but from 3-6 saved two set points with two of his better serves. Then with Woodbridge serving at 6-5, the Australian broke a string, stormed to the net more in hope than anticipation, and saw Rusedski net a volley that should have gone into the open court.

Despite the loss of the set, Rusedski should still have clawed his way back. He broke early in the second and opened up a 4-1 lead, yet the writing was on the wall. In the third game he tripped over his feet mid-court and was lucky to see a Woodbridge backhand just drift into the tramlines. It was that type of day and for Rusedski it ultimately meant defeat with no excuses.

From 4-1 up in the second set Rusedski lost the next five games and won just two out of 13. To his credit, Woodbridge played canny tennis, sticking to his masterplan. Rusedski looked increasingly hapless and helpless, and the end came after two hours of play.

Woodbridge's reward is a fourth-round tie against Nicolas Escude, the 21-year-old Frenchman who has played 14 sets in his first three matches, and, should he win that, a quarter- final against Nicolas Kiefer or Guillaume Raoux awaits. All three are beatable - a route to the semi-finals Rusedski has missed out on, though having lost here in the first round last year, he will only fall from sixth in the rankings if both Petr Korda and Marcelo Rios reach the latter stages here.

In yesterday's evening match Rafter simply ran out of gas. He had had to play for three and a half hours in the first two rounds and desperately needed a short match in readiness for a tussle with Andre Agassi the media had already begun to hype.

It could have happened. Rafter took the first set and led with a break for much of the second, but once Berasategui levelled and forced Rafter's seventh tiebreak of the week, the momentum shifted his way. Rafter sank without trace in the third set, and his fightback in the fourth was not backed up with enough ammunition to disturb the relentlessly consistent Basque.

The defeats for Rafter and Rusedski have left the path clear for Agassi, a clinical winner against Andrea Gaudenzi. Only the No 9 seed Marcelo Rios is left in the American's half of the draw, with the two due to meet in the quarter-finals.

For a few moments earlier in the day the women's top seed Martina Hingis looked in danger of going out. Facing Anna Kournikova, her great rival from junior days, she came out to serve 3-4 down in the final set, with the 16-year-old Russian tapping into a rich seam of passing shots.

But with an upset very much on the cards, the Russian, who has yet to beat Hingis on the professional circuit, found herself spraying the ball out of court, and suddenly Hingis was not only back but into the fourth round with a 6-4 4-6 6-4 scoreline. This could be as close as Hingis is pushed in the tournament, and her gestures at the conclusion of the match betrayed immense relief at surviving the scare.